Russell Hoban – it amazes me how some people still say ‘Who?’ Where to start with him? I was lucky. When I was 18, my English teacher literally threw her copy of The Mouse and His Child at me as I was leaving for university and told me I must, had to, NEEDED TO read it.
The RSC put on a new adaption of The Mouse and His Child in 2012, described in the Independent as ‘a thought-provoking delight.’ The Guardian called the book ‘both comforting and devastating’. I think all of those words can be applied to much of Russ’s work and perhaps to the man himself: the impact he seems to have on reading him and those, including me, who had the unforgettable privilege of meeting him.
The same year I started university, my best friend would not shut up about a new book she had read. She raved about its genius and made it sound awful. It was set in and around our home town of Folkestone, Kent, in a post-apocalyptic world and was narrated by a 12-year-old boy writing in a made-up language that was hard to get used to but ok if you read it aloud for a bit. Yeah, right.
The early 80s weren’t the right time for me to find this appealing. A nuclear meltdown seemed a real possibility then and was referenced all around, from Raymond Briggs’s heart-breaking graphic novel When the Wind Blows to the ITV bombshell (sorry) of Threads.
After university at Canterbury, I worked on the Folkestone Herald as a reporter. With Dungeness Nuclear Power Station at hand, it wasn’t hugely reassuring to watch local fire fighters rehearse their unstoppable defence of our safety by putting a rope around a notional radiation-blasted area.
I interviewed the inventor of the CND symbol, local resident Gerald Holtam, and was saddened and scared by his quiet melancholy about the state into which civilised people had got themselves.
And seeing that another Hoban book, Turtle Diary, had been turned into a romcom didn’t inspire me to read more. Idiot.
So I didn’t turn to Riddley Walker until nearly 20 years later. Now it’s my go-to book when I’m at a loss (along with Nancy Mitford. An obvious combination.) Yes, it demands concentration, probably complete attention. Good writing should and does. The rewards are endless. I read masses of children’s books now, not least as I’m trying to write them. It’s hard to think of another 12-year-old boy who is as real, powerful and engaging as Riddley.
In 2010, the Guardian chose Riddley Walker for its Book Club and writer John Mullan interviewed Russ. What better present for my best friend than a ticket? We sat with our mouths open throughout and then queued to get our books signed. Russ patiently listened to our various rambling theories about locations, made us laugh, posed for pictures (before selfies, hurrah) and chatted some more.
Not long after, Will Self interviewed Russ at the British Library. You wait years for one Russ Hoban to show up … Do read the article: a brief and affectionate capture of a hero to Mr Self and many more of us. Here’s Will Self, reading Riddley Walker in his best ‘future Kent’ accent. We had more books signed; the security guards had turned off the lights and his taxi was waiting at gone 9pm but Russ, in his late 80s, stayed chatting and joking and signed my book by torchlight. What a gentleman.
Links for those events are on SA4QE: an inspired annual 4 February event that marks the date of Russ’s birth by encouraging people to note their favourite quotes from his books on yellow paper and leave them for people to find. You can see Tuesday’s quotes on @russellhobandotorg and at the official Russell Hoban website. I’m sure Russ would have loved the use to which Ben Osborn put his Pret wrapper, pictured above.
The fan sites and the event are a labour of love. Russ inspired it in so many of us. Please, please read him if you haven’t. Look – here’s where to start.
Russell Hoban: February 4, 1925 – December 13, 2011. Fine writer, fine man. Wel Im telling Truth here aint I. That’s the woal idear of this writing which I begun wylst thinking on what the idear of us myt be.